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Section 11
Using Conflict Resolution Training to Improve
Behavior in Children of Divorce

Question 11 | Test | Table of Contents

The manner by which parents interact with each other, both before and after the divorce, may have a far greater impact on children than the actual divorce itself (Hetherington, Stanley-Hagan & Anderson, 1989; Hines, 1997). Indeed, it is often difficult to separate the effects of divorce from the effects of a conflictual family relationship. In this manner, the negative effects of divorce may stem from pre-existing differences in the family unit prior to the divorce itself, and these negative effects may be more related to the emotional separation that precedes the legal divorce. In general, children who have recently experienced a family dissolution have a more difficult time with academic and social expectations at school than children from intact families or established single-parent or blended families (Carlson, 1995). However, there is much variability in children's adjustment to parental divorce. Under some circumstances, children of divorce show only small negative effects that are limited in time; and in a few circumstances, children show resilience in adjusting to the effects of parental divorce. Indeed, children who thrive well in family dissolution are more likely to report living in homes characterized by family support and parental control (Dacey & Travers, 2002). What are the circumstances of children's successful adjustment to parental divorce? Children do better when parents provide consistent and coordinated co-parenting in which they monitor their children and provide them with nurturance and discipline (Carlson, 1995; Hines, 1997). Such co-parenting requires a problem-solving approach in which the separated parents hide their own conflicts from children and avoid putting children in the middle of parental disagreements. After the divorce, effective co-parenting requires a business-like relationship in which parents avoid criticizing each other in front of their children. Despite such resilience, many children of divorce experience intense, short-term effects that negatively impact upon their school performance; and a few children carry long-lasting effects into their own adulthood that seriously impair their ability to develop and maintain a long-lasting relationship (Wallerstein, 1988; Wallerstein & Corbin, 1999). For these children, witnessing the conflict of parental divorce represents a critical life passage of emotional stressors that predispose them to much vulnerability (Thompson, 1998). The emotional aspects of adjusting to parental divorce often affect the child's ability to meet the academic and social expectations at school (Dacey & Travers, 2002). In this regard, the emotional aspects of divorce often include feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, and sometimes, aggression (Simons, Gordon, Conger & Lorenx, 1999). Additionally, parental divorce often affects the child's sense of emotional well being and self-esteem. The treatment of the cognitive, affective and behavioral consequences of divorce at the community agency can extend across the continuum of primary, secondary and tertiary intervention (James & Gilliland, 2001). Primary intervention programs typically help children understand and cope with divorce as a common life crisis. Secondary intervention programs provide services to children at risk of experiencing the negative effects of parental divorce. Tertiary intervention programs provide services to children who currently experience harmful cognitive, affective and behavioral consequences of parental divorce.

Purpose of the Study: The purpose of this study was to examine the effects a pre-referral tertiary-intervention program in reducing acting-out behaviors of students referred for special education assessment due to behavioral difficulties and whose parents were recently divorced or separated. Counselors at five junior high schools identified 21 students from recently dissolved families who were referred by teachers for special education assessment because of recent episodes of disruptive classroom behavior. Prior to the special education evaluation, counselors provided the referred child and his or her custodial parent with a pre-referral intervention that involved parent-child counseling at a community agency.

Treatment: Community agency counselors offered a conflict-resolution model of family-systems intervention to each dyad presenting for treatment. Dyads consisting of the referred child and his or her custodial parent received a family-systems treatment that focused upon the reduction of conflict associated with recent episodes of misbehavior at school. The resolution of conflict and associated misbehaviors focused on many problem-solving issues: (a) How to appraise and interpret antecedents of conflict? (b) How to reinterpret a provocation? (c) How to solve problems? and (d) How to include others in the resolution of a disagreement? In this regard, treatment was grounded in the cognitions and behaviors operant within the family environment that both preceded and followed classroom misbehavior and the strategies used by the custodial parent to discipline and socialize the child. Counselors at a community agency administered the treatment, which included the referred child and his or her custodial parent, although other family members were occasionally included to address treatment goals. The typical dyad met with the counselor weekly for approximately one and one-half hours. The average length-of-treatment was 3 months (SD = 3.2 weeks).

Conclusions: Results from this study suggest that pre-referral intervention can reduce the number of students placed into special education for acting out behaviors when such behaviors are attributed to the effects of a recent parental separation or divorce. Results from this study suggest that the community agency counselor can play a unique role in assisting schools in helping students cope with issues that impede their education when those issues relate to responses to family dissolution. Results from this study also suggest the unique role of conflict theory in treating the effects of family dissolution upon school behavior. In particular, the treatment of conflict-laden parent-child relationships is associated with (a) increased use of rational problem solving when attempting to resolve conflictual issues, (b) fewer incidents of verbal aggression at home, and (c) fewer incidents of acting-out behaviors at school. In this regard, the issues of unresolved conflict at home can affect behavior of children at school, and resolution of this conflict makes it easier to children to resolve problem behaviors at school.

Conflict refers to incompatible actions in a given situation, which may exist at an individual level or among several individuals (Barsky, 2000). In this study, the custodial parent and child served as the treatment unit, and the interpersonal conflict between parent and child served as a principle treatment objective. However, parents and children were encouraged to express the internal conflict associated with the interpersonal conflict. For the parent, internal conflict was often described a need to express love and concern for the child, yet simultaneously express a need to reject the child's use of verbal aggression and behavioral non-compliance. For the child, internal conflict was often described as a difficulty in using language to express thoughts and feelings about his or her parents' marital dissolution and the behavioral expressions of interpersonal conflict when language expression was not available. The family-systems treatment looked at the manifestations of conflict within and upon the entire family unit, with cognitive strategies developed to use language when appraising and interpreting the family dissolution, along with cognitive strategies of using language to appraise and interpret the conflict that precedes classroom misbehavior. The community agency counselor typically performs a variety of functions in the community agency setting (MacCluskie & Ingersoll, 2001), and the application of this treatment often generalizes to a number of settings, including the schools. A family-systems perspective of treatment has been long recognized within psychotherapy research and is considered a valuable component of treatment. This particular program recognized the importance of treating the family unit when classroom misbehavior can be explained by the difficulty children experience when adjusting to parental separation and divorce. Benefits of this treatment had individual and systemic effects. Individually, students were able to apply more internal controls to situations that provoked conflict in the classroom in such a way as to increase their potential to learn. Systemically, the family system began resolving issues with more rational discussion and with less verbal aggression. Systemically, the school district was able to implement a pre-referral intervention program that provided an effective treatment and decreased the need for a special education placement.
- Dykeman, Bruce F.; The Effects of Family Conflict Resolution on Children's Classroom Behavior; Journal of Instructional Psychology, Mar2003, Vol. 30 Issue 1

Personal Reflection Exercise #4
The preceding section contained information about using conflict resolution training to improve behavior in children of divorce.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Leclair, V., St-Amand, A., & Bussières, È.-L. (2019). Association between child custody and postseparation coparenting: A meta-analysis. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 60(2), 90–101.

Rosso, A. M., Camoirano, A., & Chiorri, C. (2019). Validity of space responses: What can we learn from Rorschach protocols of divorcing couples fighting for child custody? Rorschachiana, 40(1), 3–21.

Schonfeld, D. J., & Demaria, T. P. (2018). The role of school psychologists in the support of grieving children. School Psychology Quarterly, 33(3), 361–362.

According to Dykeman, treatment of conflict-laden parent-child relationships is associated with what three behavior changes? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 12
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